With Killer's Execution, Karzai Signals Move on Warlords

Posted in Broader Middle East | 03-May-04 | Author: Carlotta Gall| Source: The New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan, May 2 — There is not much sympathy in Afghanistan for Abdullah Shah, a notorious mujahedeen commander who became the first man to be executed in the two years since President Hamid Karzai established a new Afghan government.

Afghans welcomed the execution as a sign that the government was finally moving against criminal warlords. The decree ordering the execution said as much, stating that "it should be a lesson to other people that a person who commits a crime will be brought to justice."

But the execution has raised concerns among human rights groups and revealed shortcomings in the judicial system under Mr. Karzai's Transitional Administration. The rights groups say Mr. Shah, 37, was not given a fair trial and was falsely accused of being a notorious killer known locally as "Zardad's dog."

Some have even speculated that other, more powerful warlords orchestrated the case against Mr. Shah, who is from the Paghman district, west of Kabul, to remove a witness to their own crimes.

Yet with 15 more men on death row, Mr. Karzai has signaled that Afghanistan is ready to resume executions. There had been a moratorium since the fall of the Taliban, which became infamous for their public executions. Afghanistan's penal code, unchanged since the 1970's, allows for the death sentence in cases of premeditated murder.

Mr. Karzai said he was considering signing three more death sentences — for the man caught in January after laying a bomb in the southern city of Kandahar that killed 19 people, most of them children, and for the two men convicted of killing a 29-year-old French aid worker in Ghazni last year.

In an interview on April 25, Mr. Karzai said he had delayed signing the execution order for Mr. Shah for a year and a half, because he was personally very reluctant to endorse the death sentence. But he said that Mr. Shah had done "unbelievably horrible things" and that intense pressure from the victims' families and the dictates of the Islamic religion required it.

"It is no longer possible for me to delay that, because really it is against a clear conscience, it is against justice to keep him there," he said.

But in a sign of just how difficult the case had been for him, Mr. Karzai did not disclose in the interview that the execution had already taken place. The government confirmed the fact only after the human rights organization Amnesty International released a statement two days later saying the execution had been carried out.

Mr. Shah was taken from a jail in Kabul on April 20 to the forbidding Pul-i-Charki prison on the eastern outskirts of the capital, where thousands of prisoners were executed under the Soviet-backed Communist government. There he was executed by a shot to the head, and his body was taken to the military hospital in the city, according to the justice minister, Abdul Rahim Karimi.

His family learned of the execution by chance three days later, family members said, when someone in their village heard an account of it in a bazaar.

"We had a lot of problems to get hold of the body," one of his cousins said. The family buried Mr. Shah in their village, Chiltan, west of Kabul.

One cousin who helped collect the body said Mr. Shah's nose appeared to have been broken, "by something like a rifle butt," before he was killed.

The family said they were unable to attend his three trials because they learned about them only after they had concluded. The trials were conducted in the special courts of the intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, also a leftover from the Soviet-backed government. His case was considered political because the authorities said he was a member of the outlawed party of the mujahedeen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

The prosecutors contended that he was a killer known as "Zardad's dog," who bit his victims like a dog, and was subordinate to a party commander based in eastern Afghanistan. Mr. Shah was also accused of killing at least one of his wives and one of his children, and of setting fire to a bus filled with civilians.

But his cousin Hamidullah, 26, and human rights officials who interviewed him in prison after his sentencing said he was not the man known as Zardad's dog, and had never been a member of the outlawed party.

Mr. Shah's family denies the murder accusations and contends that witnesses were bribed. Family members say powerful hands were guiding the case "from behind the curtain," but they said it was too dangerous to say whose hands they were. The family has a decades-old feud with another family in the Paghman region, but they made it clear that they blamed higher-level people for pushing for a death sentence.

"Abdullah Shah's execution may have been an attempt by powerful political players to eliminate a key witness to human rights abuses," Amnesty International said in a statement. The death penalty was imposed hastily by a judge under pressure of the Supreme Court, it said.

Amnesty International and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission had called for a stay of execution, saying Mr. Shah was not given a fair trial, and in particular had not been allowed to present any defense.

The chief of the Afghan commission, Sima Samar, said Mr. Shah had been accused of offenses in the category of organized crime and war crimes, which the court system in Afghanistan was not capable of addressing.

"There is no law that covers war crimes, and they do not have the experience for that," she said in an interview in Kabul on Thursday.

Yet the secretive manner in which the trials and execution were carried out did not set a good precedent for justice in Afghanistan, she said. "It is not a good beginning," she said.